U.S. military drones will "continue to play a role" in the Middle East as America continues to ramp up its unmanned attack capability in the face of rising tensions and criticism, one of the Navy's top chiefs told CNBC.
Violence in Iraq has flared up in recent weeks with militant group ISIS capturing large parts of the country. The U.S. has already pulled troops from Iraq and is now preparing to call troops home from Afghanistan too, even as sectarian conflicts continue in both nations.
The U.S. is flying armed drones over Iraq to protect troops have arrived to assess the deteriorating situation in the country. CNN reported last week that the Pentagon is considering a missile-equipped drone attack to target ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, highlighting the capability of the U.S. unmanned aircraft.
Rear Admiral Mat Winter, program executive officer of unmanned aviation and strike weapons for the U.S. Navy, told CNBC at the Farnborough International Airshow that he saw drone systems play a vital role in "providing the capabilities that our international partners and our US forces need to do their mission in that area."
"The U.S. Navy has deployed unmanned systems in the region and providing the tactical and strategic capabilities requested by the combatant commanders, by the fleet commanders and by our international partners."
Triton drone 'on time'
The U.S. military is upgrading much of its arsenal and is focussing on so-called "smart weapons", which are computer-controlled missiles and other ballistics, Winter said.
One of the main products highly anticipated by the U.S. Navy is the MQ-4C Triton drone, an unmanned aircraft with a 40-meter wingspan. The aircraft, currently under production by Northrop Grumman, has a 360-degree radar and sensors and can cruise 20,000 metres for up to 30 hours.
Winter said the drone will be delivered "on time" and has passed many "milestones". It is expected to be delivered at the end of 2017.
Human rights issues
The use of U.S. drones to target al-Qaeda members and other security threats has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and and Human Rights Watch who claim the strikes are unlawful.
The U.S. government has continually denied these allegations and has continued the attacks. Last month, the U.S. carried out its first drone strike in Pakistan in almost six months, killing a senior commander from the Taliban spin-off group the Haqqani network.